“IT DOESN’T DEFINE ME”
AS SHE PREPARES TO BECOME A FIRST-TIME MOTHER, TENNIS SUPERSTAR SERENA WILLIAMS REVEALS TO STELLAR WHY SHE WILL NEVER PUSH HER CHILDREN TO PLAY SPORT
She’s one of the greatest tennis players of all time. But Serena Williams admits her biggest challenge – motherhood – is still to come, as she talks exclusively to Stellar about her fears, faith and future plans.
Her due date is fast approaching, and Serena Williams is growing nervous. “I don’t think watching birthing videos helps,” she says, absent-mindedly stroking her blooming belly. “I actually think it makes it worse. Having a baby, nothing is guaranteed.”
It preys on her mind. And it comes up again when she’s talking about how motherhood might affect her tennis. “That’s the scariest thing. [But] I think [giving birth] will give me more strength, if that’s possible, and a lot more confidence. I feel like I will be ready for anything.”
Her anxiety illustrates how relatable Williams is, or how terrifying birth is, or maybe both. Because few would expect anything experienced by so many women to faze someone who has survived debilitating injuries, a pulmonary embolism and the death of a sister – and, at 35, won the most recent Australian Open in searing heat and straight sets while eight weeks pregnant.
In fact, few women seem better equipped, physically or mentally, to take on childbirth. Courageous and unapologetic, Williams rose from the courts of downtown LA to conquer the uptight tennis world, winning more grand slams than any other player ever. Her influence reaches beyond sport: she has danced in a Beyoncé video, walked the red carpets at the Vanity
Oscar Party and Met Gala, forged a business empire, and become a feminist icon.
Yet she is nervous about having a baby. It’s endearing, and exposes vulnerability in a woman who seems indomitable to so many. “I have so much respect for so many women [for giving birth],” she says in her soft, breathy voice. “I am about to be a real woman now, you know? It’s going to be something incredibly impressive to go through.”
HOW THE WILLIAMS sisters became tennis royalty is now sporting folklore. It began with the security-guard dad who saw a tennis player winning $50,000 on TV and decided the game would be a ticket to a better life for his children – two of whom, Venus and Serena, were yet to be born. His girls would go on to spend countless hours on raggedy public tennis courts in the notorious LA suburb of Compton, being drilled not only in the sport but also character traits crucial to cracking an uptight and thoroughly white-skinned game: self-discipline, mental fortitude, unquenchable spirit.
But Richard Williams also preached balance. Tennis was important – daily practices lasted hours – but so was faith and education. “I really like how I grew up,” says Williams, a devout Jehovah’s Witness. “I had a lot of humility. No matter what’s happened, I am the most level-headed person you will ever meet. I am no better than anyone else.”
The Williams family takeover of tennis was partly due to extraordinary – some might say hardcore – parenting. Now their youngest daughter and her fiancé, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, have perhaps a bigger challenge ahead. Both broke through as outsiders (Ohanian was the Brooklyn-born child of migrants, and grandchild of refugees from the Armenian Genocide), but their child will be the ultimate insider. “It’s something we are working on: ‘How do we keep our baby humble?’” Williams says. “We haven’t come up with an answer yet, but having a strong spiritual background helps. I really think we have to keep referencing the importance of humility.”
Williams learnt she was pregnant while in Melbourne on January 12, less than a week before the Australian Open began and just weeks after Ohanian proposed. She had been feeling strange – and a little bit nauseous – and was preparing for a dance event with Australian bra company Berlei, for which she is the brand ambassador, when she did a pregnancy test in the bathroom. Her heart “dropped into her stomach” and she spent the day in a daze. She’d always wanted to have kids; she just hadn’t planned for it to happen then.
She did six tests, all positive. Five days later, she played her first match of the tournament. Eleven days after that, she won her 23rd singles grand slam, beating sister Venus in straight sets.
Williams only told a handful of people about the pregnancy, including her agent Jill Smoller. “It wasn’t the most relaxing grand slam, let’s just say that,” Smoller tells Stellar. “I don’t know many people who could’ve compartmentalised and had the focus she had. I’m still not sure how she managed – with the heat, and the emotional and physical toll of a grand slam.”
For the first time, Williams is taking a break from tennis that has not been forced by illness or misadventure. It has been liberating; she’s been hanging out at home in Florida, walking and cycling and pursuing myriad other interests – her fashion company, business ventures and new board position at consumer survey start-up Surveymonkey.
She and Ohanian are reportedly to marry in the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn. Williams has already had a baby shower (Meghan Markle is said to have cancelled at the last minute, to spend time with Prince Harry at the polo). Despite once saying her dream was to create wedding dresses, Williams has no plans to design her own. “The bridesmaids, maybe.”
An early September due date looms (her camp won’t reveal specific timing), and when Stellar meets a heavily pregnant Williams in her hometown of Palm Beach, Florida, her belly is ripe, fatigue is setting in, and the weight of her expectant body has slowed her down. She slept restlessly the night before, struggling to turn over in bed.
At the end of a full day’s filming an online campaign celebrating 100 years of Berlei, she is exhausted, but her spark returns when discussing her fiancé’s upcoming “Daddy’s class”, in which he will learn the basics of baby handling. “Who knows, maybe it’s a gambling class, maybe they hang out and have beers or watch sport,” Williams jokes. She is actually a little envious. “I have never been around babies,” she admits. “I need a Baby 101 class – they don’t have one for the women! He’ll probably know more [than me] after his four-hour course.” She’s planning to breastfeed (“I like to do things natural”) and has an army of enthusiastic assistants in her mother and three older sisters, who she says are “almost too into it. It’s like, relax, you’ll all have time.”
Williams will take the rest of the year off competitive tennis, and says she’ll take things one day at a time, but still plans to compete at next January’s Australian Open. Smoller is already talking to reps at lead-up tournaments. If it comes off, says Williams, “I would imagine [the baby] would come everywhere with me.”
Like most women on the threshold of parenthood, she’s thinking – and worrying – about the kind of mother she’ll be. “I always want to be the best at what I [do], so I am a little nervous,” she says. Does she harbour ambitions to raise a future tennis champ of her own? “Whatever they want to do, they can do,” Williams says. “If they want to be a piano player, I’m here to support them. I’m not going to say, ‘You have to play tennis.’ I wouldn’t even put a tennis racket in their hand.that may be a little bit of pressure. What they want to do is up to them.”
THE PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN the world’s greatest female athlete and an Aussie bra company began in 2006, when Williams’s mother Oracene Price visited Myer in Melbourne to buy a sports bra for her daughter. She has worn Berlei ever since; a few years ago, their partnership became official.
It’s an impressive coup for a company that’s primarily focused on Australasia, but Williams likes the bras and simply wants to spread the word. “She does not do what she doesn’t want to do, and she’s not good at being fake,” says Smoller. “The bras are part of who she is. She doesn’t play without them.”
Williams, who loves an on-court fashion statement and prefers to preserve her female silhouette, likes that Berlei bras support the shape of the breast rather than crush it like most sports bras. “It’s called single-breast encapsulation,” says Berlei marketing manager Zoe Hayes. “I call it anti-monoboob.” Berlei doesn’t do much personal tailoring for Williams, but “we do make sure we are dyeing for her skin”. They were the first Australian commercial brand to create a maternity bra and have sent her a big box of them.
Berlei sits alongside Nike, Intel and Gatorade on Williams’s list of ambassadorships. But her business interests reach further than that. She has investments in the Miami Dolphins and the UFC. She has a fashion line (Anna Wintour gives her feedback). She has dabbled in acting. Smoller says it’s this diversity of interests that has helped Williams achieve longevity. “The fact she is able to shift her mind to things away from tennis allows her to be excited, energised and focused when she is on-court,” she says. And Williams agrees: “Tennis is great, it’s wonderful,
“I think that giving birth will give me more strength… I feel like I’ll be ready for anything”
I am so happy to be good at it, but… it doesn’t define who I am.”
Outside interests also give her a break from the relentless pressure, which Smoller believes fans underestimate. “[Williams] is not allowed to lose,” she says. “If she [does], it’s breaking news; if she wins, it’s just a relief – she was supposed to win. But that doesn’t just happen, you have to actually get out there and do it. The person you’re playing generally plays the best match of their life, so you have to be on it every time.”
EVEN AFTER WINNING 23 singles grand slams – beating Steffi Graf’s record of 22 – and 39 in total (including mixed and women’s doubles), debate still rages over whether Williams is the best female tennis player in history – or simply the best tennis player in history. In June, John Mcenroe said she would be, “like, 700” if she played on the men’s tour (via Twitter, Williams told him to leave her alone – she was busy trying to have a baby).
While Williams doesn’t find such conversations boring, she does wonder why commentators constantly pit her against other people, instead of using her record as the yardstick. “Why are they not comparing Roger [Federer] to me?” she says. “There are barriers I hope to break so my baby, whether boy or girl, won’t have to live under those stipulations.”
Williams has long been a crusader for women’s issues – education, domestic violence, the pay gap and body image. Many young women now shun the word, but she says “I definitely am a feminist. I like to stick up for women and women’s rights. So many things happen and I just think, ‘Wow, why don’t we have a chance?’ If that makes me a feminist, I am proud to be one.”
After Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died in 2015, Williams – who lost eldest sister Yetunde in a drive-by shooting in 2003 – helped her through her grief. They hadn’t been terribly close beforehand, but Williams thought it important to show women they can be public about their support of other women. “Women get a rep that we don’t,” she tells Stellar. “Not true. I sit in the locker room and see women talking all the time. We need to put it out there that, by the way, I do support this person, I do want to call Sheryl twice, three times a week to make sure she’s OK.”
Williams won’t be the first woman to return to professional tennis after having a baby. Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong Cawley and most recently Kim Clijsters, all won a grand slam as mothers. Some players say the new role improves their game, because it gives them something else to think about. “I think she is going to receive a new infusion of energy and power from this,” says Smoller.
At 35, Williams is nearing retirement age for a tennis player. But, Smoller says, “As long as she hates to lose and enjoys the fight, she can play for as long as she wants to play.” Smoller also believes that whatever post-tennis incarnation Williams takes on, she will be no less compelling to watch.
Williams herself doesn’t know yet. “If you’d asked me 10 years ago where I’d be in 10 years, I would have said I’m going to be retired and have a family. Ten years from now? Hopefully I will have more kids. I would like to sit on another board or two… and promote diversity, both ethnic and sex diversity, and hopefully break down barriers for lots of people.”
She does see a time when female athletes won’t be seen as some sort of secondary category – they’ll just be athletes, plain and simple. As to when that may be? “I don’t know. But if I have to bite the bullet for the next generation, I’m ready and willing. If I see someone else come up and win more than me and do better, that’s what we want. That’s what we need. And that’s what I would like to see.”